I am eager to begin a new, ambitious task, which I hope to complete over the next fourteen years (in which I can be reasonably confident that my eyesight and manual dexterity will endure).
What I intend to draw is an iconographic summary of the Old and New Testaments. While I do not intend to illustrate every single Biblical scene, I do intend to draw those that are most prominent in traditional liturgy and patristic exegesis; were I never to draw them, I would feel my artistic career incomplete. The events described in the Old and New Testaments are the very raw stuff of Christian belief and Christian art; no other subject offers the artist such inexhaustible depth of beauty and symbolism.
While I shall continue to accept commissions for other works, I plan to devote a large portion of my effort to this project. In my mind, I have been calling it Summula Pictoria, a little pictorial summary of Divine Revelation. I want to make it with the spirit of a medieval encyclopedist, who gathers as much patristic wisdom as he can find and faithfully puts it into order.
This will be realized as a series of color drawings on calfskin. My hope is that the pictures of the Summula Pictoria wss three characteristics to make them superior to anything I have yet drawn. Insofar as I am capable, I want to make them:
EXHAUSTIVE: I want their content and arrangement to be faithful to the Biblical text, the patristic commentaries and the artistic tradition. Moreover, I want these pictures to include as much detail from these sources as possible. I want everything included, whether great or small, to be thoroughly considered and significant: the haloes, the faces, the garments, the background architecture, the plants and animals, the stars in the sky. I want their compositions to reflect a proper theology of time and space, light and darkness, sacred numbers and directions.
COLLECTIVELY COHERENT: I want all of these (more than 200) drawings to be realized in a common style and perspective. I want every person, place and thing that appears from picture to picture to be recognizable; St. Thomas the Apostle will always be the same man, and Solomon’s Temple will always be the same building. Because of this coherence, once completed, the Summula Pictoria could be a source for countless derivative works. Its pictures could illustrate a Bible, a Missal, a Book of Hours - or illustrate a series of picture books, a series of board books, a series of coloring books - or serve as models for artwork in other media: vestments or relief carvings or stained glass windows.
ALTOGETHER ORIGINAL: The drawings certainly will be influenced by artwork of the past; I defer always to the Fathers in matters of arrangement and disposition. Yet I intend to copy no other work of art directly. The figures - their faces, poses and clothing - will be newly invented. The fabric patterns and architectural ornaments that appear in the pictures, the tile floors and carpets and everything else I shall design myself.
Actually completing, or even starting, so ambitious a task will require quite a lot from me, and I expect to spend a year (possibly two) in preparation. Currently, my plans include:
TECHNICAL IMPROVEMENT: Most especially in figure drawing. This is the aspect of my art that I am most eager to make better.
RESEARCH: I have already begun to re-read and take notes upon the Bible, the traditional texts of the sacred liturgy, and the art historical books that have most informed my understanding of Christian iconography. I plan to read also philosophical and theological works by Dionysius, Augustine, John Scotus Eriugena, Honorius of Autun, Hugh of St. Victor, Hildegard of Bingen and Suger of St. Denis, who are my major intellectual influences. Conveniently, several medieval encyclopedias summarize the patristic wisdom regarding typology, liturgiology, sacred mathematics and natural symbolism; inconveniently, most of them have never been translated into English. So I need to improve my Latin comprehension enough to use works like the Glossa Ordinaria, the Rationale Divinorum Officiorum and Rabanus Maurus’s De Universo for reference.
FUNDRAISING: Drawing is my livelihood and my means of supporting my family, so I cannot take imprudent risks with my artwork. This project will not be feasible unless I can secure advance patronage for many of the drawings, and sell reliably those that I draw on speculation. The most daunting part of the project is the initial preparation, the time invested time in technical improvement and research.
I now earn my living almost entirely through commissioned work, print sales and book royalties. I have never received grant money, or attempted crowdfunding, subscription services or profit-sharing; I may need to explore some of these. I am hopeful that some of my existing patrons will be as excited about this project as I am, and will help in finding creative ways to make it possible.
As the idea of the Summula Pictoria became clearer in my mind, I realized that the project needed a second component. Visual expressions of theology and symbolism, no matter how profound or beautiful, are not effective if nobody understands them. The meaning of religious art has become obscure; medieval works that once catechized the unlettered now require written commentary to interpret. Its very strangeness to the modern mind has become part of its appeal, which is not right at all. Christian art is meant to be for everyone.
I intend to use the Summula Pictoria as a tool for instruction. As I research, compose and draw these pictures, I shall make a record of my creative process: sharing my notes and summaries of iconographic sources, displaying drawings in progress, providing models to copy. I hope is that this will be useful to anyone who wants to make religious art, or to understand it. My idea is not to create a scholarly text or a university course; it is to offer, for free, something much more accessible, comparable perhaps to a cookbook in which a restaurant chef shares his recipes.
To this end, I have launched this new web log, in which I shall post my writings about Christian art: its principles, its symbolism and its techniques. I have noticed a real hunger among aspiring artists for sound instruction in these.
I have noticed also a real hunger among parents and teachers for sound instruction about religious art directed to children. My wife and I intend to educate all of our children at home, and spend a considerable amount of time thinking about their artistic formation. We have found fault in almost every homeschooling curriculum’s treatment of art. Thus, a second aim of my new web log will be to provide educational material for children and advice to parents and teachers.
A common feature of this new web log will be the offering of material for free download: patterns that can be printed, traced and copied; coloring sheets for children or adults; games and puzzles and typographic broadsides. All of this free material will be collected on my web page here.